My dear friend Jessie, who blogs at Releasing Jessie, recently wrote a post that inspired me to write about my FOO in an effort to try to answer some of the questions she asked there: What does a healthy family look like? What does a healthy sibling relationship look like? How supportive are you supposed to be? When do you know it's enough? When do you think it's too little? How do you have a close family without being enmeshed? What does a healthy relationship with siblings or parents look like? What kinds of things can be encouraged between one's own children? And what should be avoided?
Phew! Great questions, which I'm going to try to tackle over the next few weeks with vignettes about what my FOO looked like when I was growing up and what it looks like now. I've been struggling the past few days to come up with a way to do that: to illustrate as precisely as possible what my family-dynamic looked like and how it came to look that way. I've started and stopped this process several times now because it doesn't seem so easy to explain how it is that I inherently and confidently know that my FOO fell into the "healthy" category. I suppose I'll start off on this attempt with the following thought: If I was approached by a complete stranger who wanted to know what made my FOO so vastly different from DH's FOO, I would begin by telling them that unlike DH's, the members of my family unit were honest; my parents told the truth, both to each other and to their children. And unlike DH's, the members of my family upheld basic principles of respect and consideration. Not only did we learn boundaries from a young age, but we were also taught that we could effectively say "no" to anyone who did not respect ours. I would tell this hypothetical stranger that my mother came from a long line of strong, empowered, and genuinely loving people, who left a legacy to be proud of, rather than one worthy of shame and sadness. I would also tell her that my father came from a background of severe dysfunction, having a father himself who was emotionally abusive even before he was diagnosed with schizophrenia after serving in WWI and a mother who, though loving, didn't know what the fuck she was doing and spent her entire life fucking her kids up. I have seen, firsthand, how difficult it is to overcome dysfunction because my own father has been fighting it his whole life. Both my mother and her side of the family and my father, in general, value honesty and self-worth; compassion and intelligence, self-respect and fortitude. WE, the Jonsie-Foos, are a group of people who tend to avoid drama, to live in Truth, and who have a very real and genuine desire to pass down to the next generation a similar sense of respect and unconditional love: for themselves, for each other, and for the world around them.
In the picture [removed], I am struck by the emotional-closeness I feel when I look at the image of me and my brothers, even though our relationship now is not what it was when the picture was taken. I don't remember the date but my guess is that the picture was taken on Easter morning when I was probably about seven (and my brothers were about thirteen, eight, and four, respectively). Each Christmas and Easter, we lined up in the hallway so my mother could take a picture of us before we'd rush out into the living room to find our Easter baskets or tear into our Christmas presents. I liked this particular picture, in part because we were all looking at the camera at the same time and not making goofy faces for a change, but also because that was a time in my life when I felt close to my younger brother. We played together a lot at that age, and we got along pretty well. I used to read to him before we'd go to bed most nights, and that continued on until I was thirteen or fourteen, not every night and only ever because we wanted to, not because someone made us do it. Maybe that's why my hand is resting gently on him in this particular photo - it was just a natural expression of our comfort with each other at that point; the bond that we had shared, that was fostered by our parents but allowed to change and grow (or subside) as time passed.
I remember always being surprised when I'd meet new people and they'd be shocked, sometimes appalled (!) that I had three, yes THREE, brothers. They'd ask me if I had any siblings and I'd say, "Yes, three brothers." And they would say, "Three? My god! Do you have any sisters?" And I would say, "No." and think, "It's really not so bad, you know." There were a few times in my young life when I wanted more siblings, brothers or sisters would have been fine, thank you. I think it shocked people because most everyone always had so many PROBLEMS with their siblings - they had a love/hate relationship or their brothers beat up on them or they didn't get enough attention because their sibling was always vying for it. But my relationship with my brothers was mostly peaceful; we rarely had any physical altercations and those that were never consisted of more than a pinch, a light punch, or occasionally being sat on. My oldest brother was known to torment and tease us most of the time (when he wasn't ignoring us anyway). I shared a room with my MB (middle brother) and LB (little brother) until I was eight, at which point I got to move into OB's room (because my parents had an addition built on the house so he could move upstairs and I could have my own room). We were not allowed to enter each other's bedrooms (or the bathroom) without knocking first or being invited in. We did not eat each other's food. We expressed physical love to each other only when we wanted to (hugs, kisses, etc...which I don't remember doing a whole lot of, though I'm sure we did when we were very small). We all had separate but equal chores to do around the house. We were expected to use manners with each other and with anyone we came in contact with. We had our own sets of friends, always. When we were old enough (probably when we started school) we had our own birthday parties with our own sets of friends (plus family parties, which our extended FOO and siblings were invited to). When one of us did something to the other that was considered unacceptable (hitting, name-calling, making encouraging remarks to get someone to pee down the stairs) Mom (or Dad, but mostly Mom) mete out punishment that pretty much always fit the crime. And yes - MB and I really did encourage LB to pee down the stairs. And LB really did it.
We didn't get into physical fights because it wasn't allowed. No one was allowed to hit, punch, kick, push, or pinch anyone else without expecting that there would be repercussions. As we got older, we had our own sets of toys and only had to share the ones that were considered communal. We were never, and I do mean never, expected to take care of or look out for our siblings, which contrary to popular belief, served to allow us an emotional closeness that most of the kids I knew couldn't fathom. We were each celebrated for our uniqueness. From the time we were toddlers, we were given age-appropriate choices in order to learn how to exercise our own right to make decisions: Two-year-old Jonsi, would you like to wear the blue or the pink shirt today? Eight-year-old Jonsi, your best friend is going to try playing softball, would you like to try that sport too? Eleven-year-old Jonsi, would you like to try wearing contact lenses? My entire life was peppered with decisions that I had never even been aware of, all of them serving to teach me that I had the intelligence and wherewithal to decide things for myself.
I don't remember much about OB when I was very young, say from the age of newborn to six, probably because he's six years older than me and we never had very much in common until I was in my late teens, and even then it was a stretch. He and I didn't become friends until just a few years ago, once I snapped out of the debilitating fantasy world I resided in for a while with my Narc-Ex, and I was well on my way toward true emotional adulthood. Even now, I'm much closer with his wife, whom I consider to be my best friend, than I am to him. My relationship with him is quite simple: we spend time together with each others' familys, we joke together and reminisce about childhood, we gently tease each other occasionally, and, well, that's about it. When I want someone to talk to, I call my best friend. Truth be told, I feel emotionally closer to her than I do to my brother, mainly because "emotional closeness" to me, equates to how often and the depth at which I communicate verbally with someone. And on the flipside, ever since I met DH, he and my brother have developed a close relationship of their own: by doing things together, side-by-side, generally mostly in relative silence. They go fishing together. They fabricate lures together. They occasionally have a couple of beers over a bonfire together. But for them, there isn't a whole lot of talking going on. I'm pretty sure that's foreign to DH, but I'm pretty sure that's how my brother has always bonded with his own friends - by sharing common interests together.
MB was adopted. He became a part of our clan when he was about three months old. My mother made a point to celebrate his adoption day every year, with a special dinner (usually at a restaurant of MB's choice) and a cake. His presence in our lives completely refutes the misused and misquoted phrase, "blood is thicker than water" because his kinship with us, in my opinion, was no less deep or sacred than the relationship biological siblings can have with each other. Genetically, he was not "one of us." But in his heart, he is and always will be. He was, quite literally, my brotha-from-anotha-motha.
And still, after all this, I don't think this post conveys just how different my family was and how different my familial relationships are than so many others out there. Let me put it this way: you know how I acknowledged that my relationship with my siblings is no longer what it was when that picture was taken? Neither I, nor any of my brothers have a problem with that. We all know that our problems are our own, that each of us is following our own chosen path, and that we can still share a bond with each other that no longer requires us to pose together in our parent's hallway for family portraits in our jammies. The first time OB opted to stay home while the rest of us went on a family vacation together (he was eighteen), I missed him but I understood that it was time for him to move on from that particular tradition, even though the rest of us weren't ready yet. When OB moved out to get an apartment with his (now wife), I had a pang of sadness because I knew he would no longer be there with us to open presents on Christmas morning or to drive me around occasionally in his supercool Camaro; but otherwise I had been prepped for it and knew it was "right." When he got married, I felt nothing but happiness for him as he started a new journey with a wonderful person who loved him just as much as he loved her. When I felt like I was losing my mind and any self-respect I might have had for myself because I was in an abusive relationship, each of my brothers reached out to me in their own way and on their own time. OB talked to me about it once, which was all he felt comfortable with and more than I ever could have required of him. When he saw that he couldn't help me because I didn't want the help, he did not offer his hand again until I asked for it. My mother never expected him to. MB reached out to me once too, on his own time and in a way that was different from OB's attempt. He too gave up when he saw I didn't want the help and no one, including me, blamed him. LB did the only thing he could do, and that was to express to my mother that he missed me. He was really too young at the time to have done much else. My relationship with him has not been the same since that time, in part because of the choices I made then, and moreso now because of the choices he is making which have little to do with me.
My brothers and I communicate with each other directly when we want to communicate - our parents NEVER play middle-man.
I can not ever remember one single instance when I felt guilted, shamed, or manipulated by my parents, extended family, or siblings.
My parents operated on a level of honesty unlike anything my husband and friends with narcissistic mothers have probably ever seen. My mom was and always will be a straight-shooter. She is the greatest example of Truth my two eyes have ever seen. My father, too, made a point to always tell the truth, in particular with regards to his FOO - I grew up hearing about his family and their dysfunctions, as well as my father's own dysfunctions - mostly from his own lips. I never questioned the truth of his words because I never had to. When we asked questions about his life, he answered them.
I never had to fear to be myself, and in fact had been developing my Self from the moment I was born because my parents evoked no sense of shame in me for being whoever and whatever I wanted to be. I was guided, never manipulated. I learned natural consequences for my misbehaviors and misdeeds. My parents' expectations were laid out, always, in a fair and concise way: the rules never changed and were always clearly expressed. Fear, Obligation, and Guilt were not a part of my life. That is what I hope to convey in the vignettes I would like to share with you: that I didn't grow up in a FOG and honesty was a way of life for us.